This is the last part in my series of articles about making a sellable pilot presentation. The one I made was called Talk Show the Game Show.
Earlier in the week, we talked about pitching, shooting, and cutting. Today I'll hand out a few things I've learned about what happens after. Next week, maybe we'll cover how to rebroadcast Cleveland Indians baseball games without the express written permission of Major League Baseball. I'm pretty sure it's easier, cheaper, and approximately as lucrative.
Chapter 4: Don't Make These Mistakes!
Guy Branum once told me that I did more to make the TV version of Talk Show the Game Show a reality than anyone, including his representation. Of course, people will say all kinds of flattering things about how valuable you and/or your friendship are to them when you're being left out of a business deal.
Tip 1: Get it in writing
I've made this mistake before. I probably make it about once a year, in fact. Never on this scale though - usually it's for some kind of already cheap short film where the director/star/sound recordist/writer takes their low res sample copy and splits.
If you need to draw up a quick deal, I like the Shake app for iOS - you tap in some basic terms and both parties sign on the screen or via email. It's great for quick jobs and sometimes, like having a slate on set, it lends an air of realness to the proceedings that help a client to focus.
When problems do arise, an editor often has pretty good leverage. I have had to withhold projects, drives, or high-quality outputs until the paycheck comes through. Of course, in this case, I didn't do that because I thought this project was my project, and we all got paid when we sold a show. With a contract, everyone's intentions would have been made clearer.
Sometimes, when the other party still withholds payment and nobody ever gets what they want, I turn those projects around into other projects, like visual effects demos, or a series of educational essays.
Tip 2: If you do get fired, stop working
A few years back, after assembling the first cut of a movie, the producers said that they were out of money and that they would take over from there because it would be cheaper not to have to pay me. That's pretty solid logic. It wasn't until the Xth phone call for Avid tech support that I had to remind the producer-turned-editor that since I don't work for him, I don't work for him.
I shot a second video with Guy and made plans for third. In my book, that almost made us friends!
Kidding again. I guess. I didn't really think we were going to be actual friends, but "business associates" seemed achievable. I admire Guy's drive to actually make things. It's not an entirely common quality even among people who nominally work in showbiz, and it's a stronger indicator for me of a possibly successful partnership than just being pals. I still believe in TSGS as a project, too, and I'm excited to see how it will be condensed for a 22-minute format.
You know what? A better tip here would have been on how to not get fired. Like "be indispensable" or something. Perhaps a lot of people could have made this show, it's just that they didn't. Until they did. TV, it seems, doesn't play by all of the same rules as modern art.
Tip 3: Don't work for free
Man, I'm bad at this one too. I can divide almost everything I've worked on into one of two piles: projects I'm proud of and projects that paid me. I'm trying to find a bridge between the two, and I thought producing something myself might have been the answer. Maybe one day it will be!
I borrowed all of the equipment we shot this pilot on from a production company that I freelance for. I also asked them for a quote on the job. If someone wanted to hire that company to use the same equipment, provide the same amount of crew, with the same me running the show, their producer's "conservative" estimate is nearly $9000. Hell of a freebie.
No money changed hands on this production, just occasional handshakes and promises. The good news is, it's all tax-free!
I hope you have found each article of this series to be in some way genuinely helpful. Or funny. Or at least not too boring. Parts of this final entry, I'm sure, will come off like sour grapes, but I mean… Yeah. Of course.
This week we're talking about how to make a pilot presentation that sells. Specifically, we're talking about how to make a pilot presentation of Talk Show the Game Show. If that's not the show that you're making, some of the details might turn out differently.
On Tuesday we talked project discovery, and yesterday was about the shoot, so today we're going to discuss post-production, and I'm going to mention a few things that will make projects better. Also, today's entry turned out a little bit shorter than yesterday, because I've been cutting each section to the bone, just like you should! With your video, I mean. You don't want it getting overly long. Especially if it's about how much better things would be if other people would be more economical and decisive in their editing. That would be terrible.
Chapter 3: You're making a commercial
Every part of a production is about looking to the future. Pre-production is about preparing to shoot, which is about preparing for post, which is about preparing for viewers. You need to consider your audience, and how they would love to turn your video off and go do anything else.
Tip 1: A show is supposed to be entertaining
That means that if there are boring parts, cut them out. Mistakes too. If someone does something that seems untoward or unprofessional (and it doesn't get a laugh), you can drop it. With a live show, you can get boxed in by people making reference to events that happened earlier - that's fine, you don't need to surgically restructure the whole show if you don't want to.
Lots of cuts can be made invisibly, with your viewing audience none the wiser. Too many cuts might be surreal. This project was supposed to seem live and casual, so I wasn't about to try to polish up every sentence, but we dropped 5-10 minutes from the events that happened on the day, because 'the way it really happened' doesn't matter. You only see the take where the toothpaste curls perfectly on the brush.
Tip 2: Cheat!
Editing is like doing magic - if you put in an unreasonable amount of work you can learn to do something so well that nobody notices you did anything. Do your best to move the viewer's attention where it belongs. With a live program, I like cutting to someone just after they begin speaking. It mimics how you might track a conversation in person, or how a show that's broadcast live might take an instant to follow the action. After you've established this conversational rhythm, you occasionally get a bonus laugh by breaking it and being right on top of a sharp joke.
Hey, use that coverage you picked up! Judge Casey rings the bell and awards points all throughout the show. Even though the judge cam didn't cover him, I still got a few shots of him awarding points when I knew someone said something that was going to score, and we reused the shot in the edit.
If, hypothetically, one of the cameras sometimes cuts during the show, particularly at the part where that camera's angle is most needed, you'll be glad you have some options.
Tip 3: Audio is more important than video
Sketchy video quality makes videos seem authentic in the age of YouTube. Sketchy audio quality makes videos seem like they suck.
It's important that the performers voices are clear, and because we're making a commercial, it's important that the audience loves every single thing they say, To that end, here's what our sound track looks like:
You'll recall that we discussed keeping the audience visible to make it look like this show has to turn people away at the door. This is the audio equivalent. "Wow," you might say to yourself, "listen to those laughs! My boss will buy me a car if I greenlight this show!"
And greenlight it they did. Within about a week of the shoot, we sent out the edited, mixed, and colored video (today I wish I'd spent a little more time on all three of those, but obviously, the work done here was sufficient) and just one year later Guy was on a soundstage shooting a proper pilot. Join us for the exciting conclusion tomorrow, in which I will almost definitely wrap up with an ill-advised post on the business end of things.
This week, we're talking about how to produce a TV pilot presentation that a production company or television channel would like to buy and turn into a series. Specifically, we're looking at the pilot for Talk Show the Game Show, which was just picked up by TruTV via Push It Productions.
Yesterday, we talked about finding the project. Today we're going to talk about shooting it, tomorrow we'll cover post-production, and Friday will be about the business of it all. And at each step, I'll pass along some advice on how to make a project like this one better.
Chapter 2: Doing it Live
After I found out that Talk Show the Game Show was about to happen, and Guy Branum found out that I wanted to record it, I had about 36 hours to put together a crew and equipment. One zoomed-out camcorder in the back of a room isn't going to sell anything, so I ginned up a 4-camera shoot. So I guess your first tip is:
Tip 1: Have a network of connections and access to great equipment!
Kidding. Sort of. I mean, it's a good trick if you can manage it. In my case, it was actually easier to put together a lot of gear on short notice than it was to get a lot of operators I trust to do good work at the last minute and on an uncertain budget, so here was my plan:
- That's one camera in the back, shooting at 4k, which means it's both my wide shot, the all-purpose safety angle I should be able to cut to at almost any time, and it's usable as a punch-in without any loss in quality. This camera shouldn't ever move, so I didn't need a proper operator for it, I just needed a responsible person who could stop random audience members from standing right in front of it or pushing the tripod over.
- That's a second camera, with operator, for covering Guy Branum, the host. He talks and reacts and tells jokes and is the center of the show, so I need good clear coverage of him. (This also happens to be a viable angle on the scorekeeper.)
- That's a third camera for the judges' table. This was intended to be unmanned as well, because the judges can chime in at almost any point in the show.
- That's a fourth camera that I would operate myself that was intended for shooting the contestants.
- The first audio recorder was plugged directly into the theater's sound system to record the voices of everyone speaking into microphones.
- The second audio recorder was in the room and recording directional mics aimed at the audience. If we want our buyers to think this show deserves to be broadcast, we want them to hear the jokes, and we really want them to hear the audience loving those jokes.
Notice also that in almost all of our shots, you can see audience heads. I wanted to be sure our viewers never forgot that this show plays to packed, sold-out audiences.
Tip 2: Prepare for Success!
Almost all of the tips boil down to preparation, really.
- Going in, I'm familiar with the format of the show so I know what the viewer needs to see. TSGS is not a standup show, so trying to shoot it with just one or two cameras is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
- It's not enough to just set up some gear and hope for the best. Live multi-cam shoots need direction too. You need to tell your camera operators who or what to pay attention to, and to stick with that thing. This is your one chance to collect material for the edit, and what you never need in the edit is the exact same shot on every camera. It seems counter-intuitive to have one camera trained on someone who isn't doing anything, but it's worth the trouble if what you need is a shot of that person when they finally speak.
- You can shoot with really green camera operators in a pinch if you've got time to explain a few basics: the rule of thirds, shooting across the length of the stage so that you can see faces, choosing one closeup instead of a miserable wide shot with nobody in the frame, and staying on target.
- This video is going to be edited. Shoot for the edit. Not every camera needs to act like it's live at all times. It's fine to have a few frantic useless seconds of repositioning to get the useful stuff faster. Most people will cut that frantic messy part out.
- Make do: If we had more time or more equipment, we would have gladly used either one. A big fisheye gopro over the scorekeeper might have been a nice touch, and time to adjust or set up additional lighting would have been a real boon. As long as we're wishing, how about monitors for the director and headsets for talking to the crew? Not on this shoot. If we hadn't been able to pull together the gear that we had, I think I could have shot a good version of this on a bunch of phones.
Tip 3: Prepare for Failure!
Since you know what the smooth sailing version of your shoot looks like, you've got more brains left over for dealing with problems when they occur!
- A production with 6 recording devices is a production with at least 6 points of possible failure. But each device is also a failsafe for the others. And besides all of that, every one of these recorders is a backup plan for the others. Our cameras are recording scratch audio to help sync, but that could probably be a source for crowd laughs if needed.
- Remember, this video is going to be edited! Shoot coverage. Get inserts. Get whatever you can in between the moments, or even before and after the show.
- Our video production was almost like a separate show from the Talk Show the Game Show performance. We did not coordinate, they didn't check to make sure we were rolling, or getting good sound, or anything else. It was on us to be ready before they were, and to get as much as we could in one take.
- Particularly if you're the producer (and shooting), you want to keep an eye on the details and the bigger picture all at the same time. At the last minute, one of our stationary cameras became a manned camera. At some point during the show that I noticed the operator had removed the lens from his camera for some reason, or was making some other kind of adjustment. Alarming! But because I noticed, I was able to try to cover his angle. During the judging sections, I changed camera positions to cover the judges' table, because I knew they weren't well represented in the other two shots.
That was the shoot. From there, all we had to do was break down the gear, back up the media, return all the equipment, edit the show, do some light finishing work, get it into the hands of the right execs, and spend a year making the deals to turn it into a TV series on deep cable! We'll skip a couple of the boring steps and pick it up tomorrow with post-production.